Armstrong ready to attack mountains

Posted: Sunday, July 13, 2003

Editor's note: Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach since 1990 and has guided him to four consecutive Tour de France titles. Elected to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in May, he is also the author of ''The Ultimate Ride'' and is writing a twice-weekly column for The Associated Press during the Tour de France.

LYON, France A sly grin appears on Lance Armstrong's face every time he thinks about the mountain stages of the 2003 Tour de France.

''Sunday's stage is going to be relentless,'' he says of the Stage 8 summit finish atop Alp d'Huez. He knows the mountains well, having ridden the slopes in training and previous races, and he knows what it feels like to leave men gasping in his wake as he climbs upward and into the yellow jersey.

The second week of the Tour de France takes the riders south through the Alps and down to the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, they will face many long, steep climbs and harrowing descents. The mountains are an unpredictable and unforgiving environment, but it is in the high, thin air that the Tour de France is won.

There is a major shift in the U.S. Postal Service's strategy as the second week begins. During the first week, the team focused on keeping Lance near the front, out of the wind, and out of trouble. As the race hits the mountains, it's time for Lance and the team to go on the offensive.

''The Tour de France will be decided in the mountains, and I'm looking forward to their arrival,'' he told me following a strong performance in the team time trial.

Success in the mountains is a team effort, but you have to be careful about how and when you use your teammates. The big, powerful men who led the team to victory in the team time trial suffer in the mountains because of their weight, but they will work in support of their leader on the early climbs each day, helping Lance conserve energy and stay with the front of the peloton until the base of the final ascent.

On the final climb of the day, the job of setting pace falls to the team's climbing specialists. In the case of the USPS, this means Roberto Heras, Jose Luis Rubiera and Manuel Beltran. These men will line up in front of Armstrong and set as high a pace as they can manage. One by one, they give everything they have and then peel off, spent and unable to keep up as their teammates continue toward the summit.

The idea is to push the pace so high that Lance's rivals have trouble keeping up. Their efforts wear down the competition while Lance waits for the right moment to launch a devastating attack. The important thing is for the attack to be quick, hard and final. There is no more demoralizing feeling in cycling than riding at your limit and watching another rider sprint away from you.

Lance trains very hard to develop the power to launch decisive attacks in the mountains. Since his comeback from cancer, we have done a lot of work on his pedaling technique. Where he used to grind up hills in a big gear, he now spins up them by pedaling faster in smaller gears. It still takes the same amount of work to get up the mountain, but now he is breaking that work into smaller pieces, meaning each pedal stroke is less strenuous than before. It's a concept I've successfully applied to other athletes and even to other sports.

Armstrong has developed a huge aerobic engine over years of training, and climbing mountains with a high pedal cadence shifts the stress from his legs to this engine. Instead of making his leg muscles push against massive resistance, he lightens the load and turns them over faster. The energy cost of maintaining a cadence of 90-100 rpm on steep climbs is very high, but with enough food and drink, the aerobic system can handle it. The same cannot be said for leg muscles.

Climbing with a low cadence means using a lot of muscular energy to overcome a huge resistance with every pedal stroke. When your aerobic system can't keep up with the demand for energy, your body produces it anaerobically, but at a significant cost. Lactic acid is a byproduct of producing energy anaerobically, and as it accumulates in muscles, first you feel a burn and then your muscles start to lose power.

By pedaling faster instead of harder, Armstrong can ascend comfortably with other elite climbers while their legs are burning with lactic acid. He can attack hard and leave them behind because he trained his aerobic system to bear the brunt of the climbing work instead of his legs. When it is time to accelerate toward the finish line, his legs will still have the power to propel him to a fifth Tour de France victory.

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